Caught (1948) remains one of my favorite films. The first time I watched it, I burst out crying when Larry Quinada (James Mason) chastises Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) for drawing a mole on her face, wearing a mink coat, and styling her hair too sophisticatedly for a receptionist in his slum medical practice. These scenes showed me definitively that Quinada is no better than Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), an abusive narcissist who thinks of Leonora as just another piece of his property.
Although Maud changes her name to “Leonora” when she enrolls in Miss Dale’s Charm School (a hideous reminder that such institutions flourished for women, and are still with us under other names), naming her fundamentally belongs to Ohlrig and Quinada. Ohlrig sneeringly calls her “Leonora,” adopting her new name as a form of deriding her methods and dreams. Quinada calls her “Lee,” which fits with his practically-minded world view and the way women should fit into it. Maud clearly wants to divorce herself from her past and life with her mother, which her name change indicates, while at the same time living up to her mother’s—and America’s—idea of success for a woman, which is to marry a rich man who will rescue her from her subsistence-level job and from a life lived according to the attributes of her body. A former car-hop, Leonora models expensive clothing in the hope of finding a rich man. Her naivete is touching, since she conceives of her rescuer as a Prince Charming to her Cinderella. Interestingly, this part of the film mirrors the post-WW II backlash against women in the workforce, independent entrepreneurs who are generally cast doubly, as damsel in distress who masks the femme fatale beneath. These women have to be punished, in order to reinstate the masculine order that war-time jobs for women eroded. Women are tossed back into domestic life. Here, we can see this type of narrative take shape, as Maud—not yet Leonora—in the shabby apartment she shares with a roommate, dreams out loud of taking two mink coats back with her to her mother’s home, one for her and one for her mother. As she dreams of her future, she slaps a fly-swatter idly against her knee. In another film, this act would signify that she will be the femme fatale of the piece, catching her man. But it can also indicate her own status, which, through her dream, will catch her and squash her in the end. This is in fact what happens in the film, and I find it to be the stuff of tragedy.
The film’s narrative is perfectly triangulated, with Leonora in the middle between Ohlrig and Quinada. Ohlrig grew up in a rich family, but boasts that by dint of his hard work, he managed to increase his inheritance 14 times. He is a masked Howard Hughes. Hughes, at the time the owner of RKO, and a very hands-on producer who had fired Ophuls from directing Vendetta (production 1946-50) and even directed some scenes himself, reviewed Ophuls’ script for Caught, and, unpredictably, did not object to his portrait as Ohlrig. He lent out Barbara Bel Geddes anyway, demanding only that Ophuls change the manner of Ohlrig’s dress so that it wasn’t “rumpled,” and eliminate any reference to his oil interests. Thus, scenes involving oil rigs and derricks were changed to take place in warehouses. Ophuls added to Ohlrig’s character a touch of Preston Sturges, who was evidently known for abusing his wife. Quinada, on the other hand, comes from a family posing as rich. Neither of his parents worked, but always found the material accoutrements that signaled wealth. There is a scene in Ohlrig’s garage, one of the confrontations between the two men, in which they both put pressure on Leonora to choose one of them and the ridiculous life that he offers her. The men face the camera with a ladder separating them, while Maud paces in profile between them. As if that ladder poses the only escape from a situation that will be determined wholly by the men. Of course, it isn’t meant as any viable escape, just a further, darkly comic, indication of how Leonora is trapped.
The seemingly abrupt ending, in which all appears to be resolved by Leonora’s miscarriage (“Now you can have a new life,” Quniada tells her in the ambulance) and the requirements that the film have a happy ending fulfilled, twists my stomach because of Barbara Bel Geddes’ at once despairing and hopeful expression, the latter designed to please Quniada when he asks, “Do you hear me?” The last line of the film is, “I hear you,” which she utters in a near-whisper, with a fake smile plastered on her face. What comes through clearly in this scene is the erasure of her desires, and in fact, the erasure of her existence as a discrete, separate person from the fantasy worlds created by men and forced into actuality. Ohlrig and Quinada (Oil-rig and Nothing) appear to oppose each other, but in fact, reiterate each other in different keys. Quinada is the more insidious of the two, because Leonora is grateful to him for rescuing her from Ohlrig, and does not see through his benign facade, made more attractive by his altruism and apparent renunciation of material values. Yet, those material values remain, if in nothing else, then in the way he wants “Lee” to appear. Thus, Caught presents the skewed, internalized values women have to combat in post-War America.
A more contemporary film that reminds me of Caught is Kathryn Bigelow’s 1989 Blue Steel, with Jamie Lee Curtis as Megan Turner. Though Turner steps out of the world in which Leonora Eames is trapped through measuring her success by marriage, the story is fundamentally the same. Bigelow shifts the discourse of what it is to live in a man’s world to the arena of work. The film is filled with spaces belonging to men, just as Caught is. Instead of Ohlrig’s mansion, his garage, his warehouse, his car, or Quinada’s office, we see the New York Stock Exchange trading floor, Eugene’s lavish apartment, the police department and various offices inside it belonging to men. We see nothing of Megan’s living space except bars on her bed frame, a bit of her bed, and the floor of her bathroom. Space itself crowds out women. In fact, in Caught, one of the most harrowing scenes takes place in Quinada’s office—a conversation about Leonora between Quinada and his colleague, Hoffman. The two men discuss Leonora as the camera, endlessly mobile (which is what Ophuls is of course known for), sweeps back and forth between the two men over Leonora’s empty desk. The soundtrack, aside from dialogue, emphasizes the noise of Hoffman’s electric razor as he shaves while talking to Quinada. Throughout the film, Leonora is continuously shaved down to nothing, a cipher “castrated” by men. In Blue Steel, Turner is castrated at every “turn” of the plot. What she says goes unregistered by the men surrounding her; her image is constructed and re-constructed by her father, by Eugene, by her boss, by Nick. The ending of Blue Steel exactly mirrors the ending of Caught: after having endured it all, and after having triumphed over Eugene, a compendium of mental disorders figured threateningly throughout the history of American cinema, she is raised from her car, limp, like a dead baby, by the strong arms of a male police officer. Thus begins her “new life.”
For all their other wild, and beautifully constructed, elements, both Caught and Blue Steel situate themselves as “woman’s films.”